Sermon for Easter 3 – Evensong Sunday 30 April 2017
3 EASTER, 2017 EVENSONG
Readings: Haggai 1.13-2.9; 1 Cor. 3.10-17
“The latter splendour of the house shall be greater than the former.”
When we began the programme to restore the interior of this church and the fund-raising to make it possible, I borrowed those words from the prophet Haggai as our motto.
He, too, was addressing a restoration project: the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. He was speaking to the Israelites who had returned to Jerusalem after the long years of exile in Babylon.
Those in charge of the project faced obstruction and opposition from local officials and population. Coupled with disappointment, inertia and low morale among the returnees, and the fact that some of them seem to have been more concerned with their own living space rather than the house of God, all this threatened to derail the while project.
Just as those words were ones of encouragement and hope to the Israelites, so they were to us as we faced a massive challenge – both in financial and organizational terms. When we began the restoration programme, with the replacement of the roof, we did so against the background of a report by professional fund-raisers which stated bluntly that there was no way the congregation could embark on such a programme with any realistic hope of bringing it to a successful conclusion. This was advice I decided to ignore. As those who have been around long enough to see the before and after, the latter splendour of this house is greater than the former.
But Haggai was not concerned about a building in isolation but as the centre of the nation’s spiritual identity; the source of its wellbeing. While we were focusing our efforts of physical restoration, it was important that we not see our building in isolation from those who worship in or the people it was designed to serve. The restoration of a building had to go hand in hand with the renewal of a community, a congregation.
The basis for that we see laid out for us by St. Paul in his letter to the Corinthians. He takes up the idea of a building project and gives it a radical new meaning. He applies it not to a physical edifice but to a community of people.
The background to what he writes is the fractious and fragmented Christian congregation in Corinth: a church he has founded. People are squabbling with one another and pledging the allegiance to one leader or another: Paul or Apollos; as if we some of us were saying: “I am for Fr, Michael, or Fr. Gerald, or the Vicar.” “I am for Jesus, because I am spiritually superior to all that lot.”
Paul speaks of his work as, first of all, being “according to the grace of God given to me.” The initiative was not his but God’s – worked out in an apostolate which manifests God’s grace to the community.
He then describes himself – – as like “a skilled master builder;” deliberately echoing what he has been saying about the contrast between the various forms of human wisdom with which the Corinthians were impressed by and the wisdom of God – with which he aligns himself.
His role had been to lay the foundation on which others would then build. That foundation was the crucified Jesus Christ and those who are following his initial work must build with care and attention to that foundation if their work is to endure. The superstructure of the building must conform to the pattern of that foundation. Otherwise it will be crooked and unstable.
Paul likens himself to a head building contractor who has carefully laid out the foundation of a building and then let out the rest of the work to subcontractors. If their work is not up to standard, or they fail to use suitable materials, there will be dire consequences.
Paul uses the traditional Old Testament image for God’s judgement: fire. A cataclysm is coming that is going to test the structural integrity of our building work, so we should build with great care. Our work should not be hasty, just for show; we must build out community solidly from the ground up in a way that is designed to endure.
Precisely for this reason, he sounds a warning for his successors: “Let each one of you take care how he builds.” Shoddy workmanship on top of the sound apostolic foundation is not to be tolerated. This same language has been found in Greek inscriptions dealing with penalties to be imposed on contractors for inferior work or failing to meet their obligations.
With that basis in place, Paul develops the point about building. Those who employed inferior material will have the quality of their work exposed by the fire of God’s judgement. “The Day” refers to the Day of the Lord, the day when God will examine and judge all human deeds and establish his justice.
The different building materials, “gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw,” have no special significance beyond the fact that the last three are combustible and the first three are not. Paul’s point is that some leaders are building with valuable fireproof material (the gospel of Christ crucified) and the others are building with ephemeral stuff (the fads of human wisdom) that will be consumed by flames in God’s coming building inspection.
This does not mean that the Church has nothing to learn from different forms of human wisdom – say in the social sciences, in management, organization or communication, in the arts and architecture and music – but any and all of these must be evaluated in terms, not of worldly success, but of fidelity to the gospel of Christ crucified; proclaimed in word and sacrament.
Those whose preaching and teaching fail to build solid community are responsible for loss and injury to many, and God will hold them accountable. If they nonetheless are finally spared and saved as individuals, it will only be by God’s grace: they will be like a “brand snatched from the fire.” (Amos 4.11)
Paul moves from the image of the church as a building to a related one. The community is not just any building but in fact the Temple of God, the place where God’s Spirit dwells. It is crucial to understand that the verb and pronoun here are plural: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” The image here is of the Spirit dwelling not in the individual Christian but in the gathered community.
The Corinthians might have thought first of the pagan temples in their own city. But when Paul speaks of God’s Spirit dwelling in a temple, he is thinking of the Spirit of the God of Israel in the Temple at Jerusalem. This role as the dwelling place of God is now claimed for the Church.
When Paul wrote, the Temple in Jerusalem was still standing and active. For Jews like Paul, it had been the central locus of the divine presence in the world. So, when Paul transfers this claim to the community of predominantly Gentile Christians in Corinth, he is making a revolutionary claim; the same claim we hear Jesus making to the Samaritan woman in John’s Gospel: “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4.21-24) The Spirit of God can no longer be localized in a sacred building: it is to be found in the gathered community of God’s elect people in Christ.
Thus the Corinthian community, and any Christian church, corporately as community, in-dwelt by God’s own Spirit, is now the living locus of God’s holiness. As a result, each member’s behaviour must be drawn from and directed toward the community’s holiness. Each of us has a responsibility for that holiness; for the work of building the Church.